Thanksgiving Day Dietary Damage Control

Maple Bourbon Pumpkin Pie by Djwtwo

This doesn’t have to fill you with dread this Thanksgiving.

With Thanksgiving day right around the corner a lot of people’s thoughts are inevitably turning to food, feasting and fat. Whether you’ve been struggling with weight loss for a while or are already fit and dreading the extra fat you expect to be saddled with, Thanksgiving Day generally marks the start of a holiday season characterized by complete dietary hedonism followed by shame fueled resolution making on January 1st.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Here are some things you can do before, on and after Thanksgiving day to mitigate the damage.

Before Thanksgiving Day

The first thing to understand before T-Day gets here is that you need to keep your expectations realistic. These tactics aren’t designed to allow you to feast without putting on a single pound – that’s just not going to happen. If you’re determined to not put on any weight this Thanksgiving it might be easier just to not celebrate it.

Instead, all of these tactics are designed to offer some damage control. Following these guidelines it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get through Thanksgiving without a single pound added, but it’ll be minimal and won’t stick around very long.

  • Have a Good Foundation – While you should be eating cleanly all the time, it’s especially important to eat right in the immediate week preceding your giant Thanksgiving Day feast. It’s equally important to be sticking to your fitness plan through that week. If you’re already coming into Thanksgiving with a net surplus in calories for the week then anything you do on that day is going to be too little, too late.

  • Plan Your Calories in Advance – Weight loss and gain isn’t quite as simple as calories in / calories out, but it’s a good place to start. If you’re expecting to eat a ton, then dial back your caloric budget on the preceding days to make up for it. If you expect to eat 10,000 Calories on T-day (around 30 pieces of pumpkin pie or so) than plan accordingly. You should already know about what your maintenance calories are and from there it’s just a bit of division.

  • Alternate Your Macro-nutrients – While protein should always make up the most substantial part of your caloric budget, if you’re not already you should alternate for a few days between higher intake of carbohydrates and higher intake of fats prior to the big feast. It’s nearly impossible to completely avoid carbs or fat in a standard Thanksgiving meal, and if you’ve been avoiding carbs or fat for a while (particularly carbs) and suddenly binge on them you’re probably going to be a bloated, groggy mess for a day or two afterward. By cycling between days of higher carb and fat intake before the big meal you get your system used to it.

On Thanksgiving Day

On Thanksgiving Day our tactics fall into one of two categories, mental and physical. The mental side is all about avoiding as much of the worst foods as you can and the physical is all about prepping your body so you’re in the best possible state to handle the feast.

  • Deplete Your Glycogen Stores – In general terms when glycogen stores are full (probably most of the time if you work a desk job) then carbohydrates will tend to be stored by the body as fat. When glycogen stores are low then instead of storing them as fat your body will tend to prefer refilling your glycogen stores with those carbs. This is one of the reasons we recommend getting the majority of your daily calories immediately post workout and why carb heavy meals only come after lifting.

    Since carbohydrates are almost more of a Thanksgiving staple than turkey, it’s a good idea to go into that meal with your glycogen stores depleted as well so that as much of that meal goes to your muscles as possible instead of to your waistline. The easiest way to do this is to hit the gym for a heavy lifting session right before you head off to your Thanksgiving dinner. If you’re strapped for time, do a few rounds of HIIT sprints, get a quick shower and go eat.

  • Eat Right on Thanksgiving Morning – Now a lot of people advise not to go into your Thanksgiving Day feast in a fasted state since you’re going to be too starving to exercise any self-control. While I somewhat agree with this, I also think it’s crazy to waste calories and refill your glycogen stores right before tackling ten pounds of pie.

    A good compromise is to do a mild protein sparing fast. Have a little bit of food that morning but keep it under 500 Calories or so and keep it as heavily weighted toward protein as possible. If you can a couple protein shakes is a good way to go. This sets your body up to be in an ideal condition to pig out while minimizing the damage.

  • Drink a Lot of Water – Chances are your massive binge is going to result in you holding onto a lot of water. This is the biggest factor in bringing on that nasty bloated feeling post-meal (and sometimes for several days after) that makes you feel like your stomach is about to explode. The best way to reduce effects of the water retention is to prime yourself the morning before you dig in. You should be drinking enough water anyway, but particularly on Thanksgiving morning shoot for downing a full gallon of water (not all at once though, please). That’s around 3.78 liters or about 7.5 water bottles. Sure you may have to run to the bathroom a few times, but it’ll be worth it to avoid feeling like a balloon.

  • Pick High Value Foods – Don’t fill up your plate with stuff you can have all year long. Thanksgiving is a one day a year feast and you should treat it like one. It’s a waste to spend all those calories on stuff you can have whenever so don’t do it. Instead focus on the things that you don’t normally get to eat.

    Also keep in mind the general guidelines you eat by during the rest of the year. Don’t feel guilty if you want to dig into the pie, that’s a rare treat, but you might as well avoid the rolls. For your staples stick to your meats and vegetables so you can have more of the treats that you only get on that day.

  • Don’t Drink All Your Calories – Be mindful of the fact that if you eat your weight in dessert and then drown yourself in liquid bread – I mean, beer – you can easily hit that 10,000 Calorie mark we talked about earlier. I’m not saying you should swear off all the alcohol this Thanksgiving, but be aware of the fact that those drinks add up. If you’re trying to keep things a little lighter, stick to higher value drinks or focus on the clear stuff.

After Thanksgiving Day

After Thanksgiving Day your strategy turns to fixing what damage was done and making sure that it doesn’t bleed over and continue to destroy your diet until January.

  • Keep Thanksgiving to One Day – Thanksgiving Day is only one day. That’s it. This year it falls on Thursday the 22nd and that is where it ends. Do not fall into the trap of eating Thanksgiving Day leftovers almost all the way until Christmas and destroying your diet completely. Give those leftovers to family and friends who need them or who just don’t care as much as you about being fit. It’s much, much better to gorge yourself on Thanksgiving Day and finish everything than it is to restrain yourself and eat pie for half of December.

  • Eat at a Solid Deficit for a Few Days – For a few days after the feast you should eat at a solid caloric deficit for a few days to help shed the few pounds you’ve inevitably put on. By solid I’m suggesting something around the neighborhood of 1,000 – 1,500 Calories below maintenance per day. Make protein comprise the majority of your calories, keep drinking as much water as possible and keep taking your fish oil (about 5g per day). If you stick to this for two to three days, maybe until Monday at most, you can remove most of the fat you put on at Thanksgiving.

  • Don’t Work Out Too Hard – This sounds counter-intuitive, but after that big of a carb heavy binge you’re going to bloated, may be dealing with some inflammation or dehydration depending on your alcohol consumption and your immune system may well be shot since you probably won’t have slept much on account of the Black Friday madness and you may also be stressed out of your mind from travel or family. Top all of this with the caloric deficit you should be hitting for a few days and you’re really in no state to be doing heavy lifting.

    Instead, do some light bodyweight exercises, take some long walks and relax a little. Take this time to do light activities, get plenty of sleep and recover. Once you’re feeling back to 100% you can hit the barbells and the hill sprints again.

These are just a handful of tips to help mitigate some of the damage most people dread from their giant Thanksgiving feasts. The most important thing is to not stress out so much over gaining a few pounds that you miss out on the chance to enjoy quality time with loved ones and to reflect on all the things you have in life to be thankful for.

Do you have any tips you like to use to keep the weight off during Thanksgiving or any other holidays? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: DJWTwo

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Adam is a linguist and personal trainer living in Cincinnati with his wife Caroline and dog Bailey. He's addicted to all things related to language, parkour, fitness and martial arts. You can contact Adam at Adam@RoadToEpic.com, on Twitter or on Google Plus.